The Colosseum has just announced—already!—that it’s keeping the underground and third tier open through December.
That’s particularly surprising news (in a good way), since some of us, myself included, thought they’d close the underground over the winter, as they did last year. Or close the areas temporarily while they started restoration work. But no… which is good news for all of those excited to see the hypogeum and third level!
From Oct. 30-Dec. 31, English tours will run at 9:40am, 12:40pm, 1pm, and 2:20pm. If you go with a tour with an official Colosseum guide (a 2-hour tour that includes only the Colosseum, with the underground and third level), the price is €21.50, including the €1.50 booking fee. The maximum group size for each tour is 25 people. Call +39 06 39967700 to book; here’s a Q&A on how to book with the Colosseum and what the underground tour includes.
The (many) archaeological sites in Rome are fantastic. For most, though, you need to use your imagination to picture what those crumbling ruins once looked like. And for those who aren’t ancient-history experts — or who aren’t particularly passionate about the whole ruins thing to begin with — that can be a little tough. Even for sites as amazing as the Colosseum and its underground.
I’ve done a lot of cool things in Rome — but visiting the Columbarium of Pomponio Hylas is one of the coolest.
And it’s one of Rome’s best-kept secrets.
First off, let’s debunk the idea that Christians were the only ones who got neat underground burial chambers in Rome. In fact, the practice of interring the dead below ground went back to the pagan Romans. One popular way to do this was with a columbarium — an underground chamber built and decorated to hold the urns of Romans’ ashes, either for one family or many. (Later, around the time of Trajan in the 2nd century, pagans would stop incinerating their dead and start burying whole bodies in catacombs. The Christians took up the same idea and, along with continuing to bury their dead side-by-side with pagans in mixed catacombs, also started building catacombs just for Christians).
Needless to say, every once in a while, a new columbarium is discovered below Rome’s ground level. This one was found in 1831. And it dates way back — back earlier than the Christian catacombs — to between 14 and 54 A.D. The incredible thing? Many of the frescoes and decorations still look fresh. And lots of the burial urns are still there.
The columbarium likely was founded by Pomponio Hylas for his family in the 1st century B.C. How do we know? The extraordinary mosaic that faces you as you descend down the stairs into the space.
The chamber itself is small. But it’s filled with beautifully-detailed, and preserved, frescoes and decorations, from mythological scenes to delicate, winding vines.
There’s nothing quite as extraordinary as standing in the small chamber designed, so intimately, by a family for its dead, seeing the frescoes that they hired artists to paint, viewing the inscriptions with their individual names — and the urns that once contained their ashes. If it weren’t so beautiful, it would give you the shivers.
And you’d never guess any of this from the outside.
To book, you’re supposed to have a group of at least 10 people. Book by calling 060608. It costs €3 per person. Just promise one thing: If you go, you will not touch the frescoes, or anything else in there. That’s what destroys the artwork.
The columbarium is located in the Parco degli Scipioni, nearest to Via Latina 10. For a map, click here.
Want to find out about Rome’s other hidden gems? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!
Hidden below ground next to the famous racetrack, the ancient mithraeum remained a secret for centuries. (It may have even been a secret when worshippers were gathering there in the 2nd or 3rd century!) In fact, it wasn't until 1931 that the five-room building was discovered… 45 feet below ground. Today, the mithraeum lies beneath the Foundation of Rome's Teatro dell'Opera.
Let me put it this way: Rome has a lot of hidden gems. But few things are more surprising than descending down a stairwell in a nondescript building… only to find such well-preserved ancient chambers!
Thanks to different clues left within the rooms — including, most excitingly, a fantastic frieze showing Mithras slaying a bull (the original was removed for preservation; the copy is shown below) — archaeologists concluded that the chamber was nothing other than a 2nd-century center of worship for followers of the cult of Mithras. But that doesn't, actually, tell us as much as you might expect. Because of all the pagan cults of ancient Rome, the Mithraic sect might have been the most mysterious.
No first-hand accounts or scriptures of the cult have survived. What we do know is that Mithraism seems to have come into existence, at least in its Roman form, in the first century. It became very popular — particularly among Roman soldiers, who probably picked some form of it up from the Persians and Greeks — and then, by the fourth and fifth centuries, faded out altogether. That might be because it was just too similar to another religion on the rise: Christianity. (For one thing, Mithras was seen as a kind of sun god who saved his people by shedding "eternal blood").
We can't be exactly sure what Mithraic followers did in sanctuaries like the one beneath Circus Maximus. But it's thought that one part of their ceremony was the sacrifice of a bull (called tauroctony), which is repeated again and again in Mithraic imagery — including in the frieze found here.
But let's be honest. Even if these underground chambers didn't make up a mithraeum, they'd still be pretty incredible. They're so well-preserved you can still walk beneath the same brick arches and tread on the same floor, with its inlaid marble pattern, as the ancient worshipers. Unlike so many other ancient ruins, you can get a real feel for what the building would have felt like.
And, unlike most ruins you find below ground in Rome today — which originally would have been at ground level — the mithraeum always would have been subterranean. That means you can experience the space almost as ancient worshipers would, perhaps sneaking in here as crowds cheered at the Circus Maximus next door.
The mithraeum at Circus Maximus is open by appointment only, and you have to be with a tour — you can't just wander in on your own. (Given how precious it is, that probably makes sense!) Through May 14, Roma Segreta, the association for those who like these kinds of hidden gems, is running tours of the mithraeum. They're about an hour and cost €6. Here's the schedule of Roma Segreta mithraeum tours. Unfortunately, they're only in Italian — but even if you can't understand a word, it might just be worth it for a peek! The coop Il Sogno also offers tours of the mithraeum, and you can pick the time — they start at €80 for 1 to 4 adults.
Want to find out about Rome's other hidden gems? Check out The Revealed Rome Handbook: Tips and Tricks for Exploring the Eternal City, available for purchase on Amazon, below, or through my site here!